Abandoned railroads once serving as a lifeline for local industry are recapturing attention as tourist attractions.
Last month, 15 groups from 12 of Japan’s 47 prefectures inaugurated an association of regional promoters hoping that their railway legacies will attract visitors and help revitalize their aging rural communities. Still, financing and safety issues abound.
Shingo Suzuki, who chairs a nonprofit group in the central Japan city of Hida, played a key role in creating the new group following a bout of success in his hometown in Gifu Prefecture.
The mountainous town of Kamioka, currently part of Hida city, developed as the base for a mine that was discovered in the eighth century and flourished as one of the largest production sites in East Asia for zinc and lead ores.
Freight trains transporting sulfuric acid were the symbol of the town for decades, including the period of Japan’s high economic growth. After the train service there was discontinued in 2006, Suzuki came up with the idea of keeping alive the rails and tracks.
“Using railways is one of the few effective ways you can find to boost local economies where populations keep declining,” Suzuki said.
The idea led to a “mountain rail bike” tour, which allows visitors to travel on an abandoned rail using mountain bikes fixed to metal frames in what was part of the Kamioka Railway line.
The largely experimental event began in 2007 and proved an instant hit. It has now grown to attract more than 40,000 people annually in recent years, giving Kamioka a reputation as a highly successful model for local revitalization.
On April 8, train lovers visited the site from across the country for a one-day revival of an old diesel passenger car, which ran for the first time since the Kamioka Railway terminated its service.
The 20-kilometer railway line was opened in 1966 by the state-run Japanese National Railways before a local operator took over in 1984. The primary purpose of the service was transporting sulfuric acid from the mining area with roughly 80 percent of the company’s revenue coming from freight, although passenger service was provided as well.
Trains continued running even after the closure of the mine in 2001, but a full shift of sulfuric acid transport to trucks in 2004 eventually triggered the termination of the railway operation.
Currently, the Hida city government owns the rails and cars while Suzuki’s NPO is assigned maintenance work such as replacement of railway ties. The local government is responsible for large-scale repairs of railway facilities.
“The mayor is very cooperative with us and has shown understanding for the use of the rails,” Suzuki said. “Our project will come to nothing without such positive support from authorities.”
The western town of Misaki in Okayama Prefecture, the only public entity among the association’s members, offers another example of collaboration between the public sector and a civic group in utilizing a discontinued railway line.
The town provides support to a voluntary group of avid railway fans, who aim to keep in working conditions train cars and a locomotive used by the Katakami Railway, which was abolished in 1991 after nearly 70 years of freight and passenger service.
The group carries out train-running operations once a month on demonstration tracks set up in a memorial park for a nearby pyrite mine, which was shut down also in 1991.
The Misaki government, for its part, owns most of the preserved locomotive and cars while providing fuel for running operations.
In 2014, town authorities extended the demonstration line by about 130 meters and built a new station at their own expense at one end of the tracks, which now stretch nearly 500 meters in total, according to the group’s website.
“These railway facilities are a valuable tourism asset for the entire town and we would like to continue cooperation (with the group) as much as possible,” said Masashi Kawashima, a senior official of Misaki town’s tourism section.
But not all such railway-inspired efforts have progressed as fortunately as these, nor do they have bright future prospects.
The Takachiho Railway in the southwestern prefecture of Miyazaki was forced to be discontinued after typhoon-caused flooding swept away two of its bridges in 2005.
The company that took over the railway’s management after the disaster currently offers visitors sightseeing rides on the deserted rail tracks by using carts converted from small trucks.
Concerned about the safety, the town of Takachiho was reluctant to give permission for the new service in the early stages of negotiation with the head of the operator, Fumihiko Takayama.
“It’s not surprising that authorities would abruptly decide to remove the rails. It would be a huge blow to us if a disaster strikes again and severely damages the railroad,” said Takayama, who hails from Takachiho and is also a nonfiction author.
Enjoying scenic countryside views from abandoned tracks often accompanies the thrill of running on challenging rural terrains, interspersed with tunnels and bridges in many locations.
This also means operators are faced with constant safety and maintenance headaches.
Masayuki Odanagi, who runs a rail bike business in Akita Prefecture, northeastern Japan, said it alarmed him once to see children bumping each other’s rail bikes on the tracks.
“What’s important is to carry out proper customer guidance and thorough facility checks, and hopefully the levels of awareness and attention regarding safety issues will be raised through the new association,” Odanagi said.